A Question of Meaning

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When asked whether I believe in God, I sometimes reply, “Yes – many gods. There’s Zeus (Jupiter), and his nagging wife Hera, and a huge extended family of other gods – Poseidon, who rules the sea, and Pluto, in charge of the underworld, and so on in an unwieldy bureaucracy of overlapping functions, somewhat like the Departments of State, Defense, and Interior, all serving at the pleasure of the president.”

People know from the start that I don’t really believe any of this, and many of the ancient Greeks probably didn’t believe it either. They didn’t think that if they climbed to the top of Mount Olympus they would see Zeus face to face. Nor did they think of him as creator of the universe; they were fellow citizens of the universe, but not creators of it. Neither did the so-called problem of evil greatly concern them: why is there so much pain and suffering in the world?

If gods did not create the world, they are not responsible for its defects. Christian theology has been wrestling with that problem for centuries. But the Greek gods were hardly paragons of morality and they weren’t worshipped as Christians worship the God of the Bible. True, the gods were immortal (they didn’t have to face death), but they were not avid moral lawgivers, and there were no eternal punishments for evil-doers, and certainly not for unbelievers.

In Judaism there was one God; and the first of the Ten Commandments warned adherents, on pain of death, not to have any gods before him. Throughout the Old Testament, God was conceived in a highly anthropomorphic way. God talked with Adam and Eve in the garden in the cool of the evening. When he told them not to eat of the tree, they disobeyed; and in the end he repented himself that he had made man.”

Later on, God gave commands to Abraham, Moses, and Noah; and usually they would hear his voice and obey his commands. Apparently God had a human voice that could be heard at great distances.

Had there been sound amplification, presumably Moses would not have had to go to the mountains to receive the commandments and then tell the Israelites about them secondhand.

It is widely held today that the author of the first chapter of Genesis was not the author of all of it. In Genesis 1 we read that “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” God, that is, existed prior to the existence of the physical universe: God was not the product of physical forces but the creator of them. And so the cosmic concept fo chapter 1 was replaced by the anthropomorphism of chapter 2.

In the New Testament, we inhabit a very different moral universe, dominated by the life of Jesus and a very different conception of the good life – not “an eye for an eye” but

One’s eternal salvation depended on one’s adherence to the Christian doctrine which admitted only believers to heaven. Thus, the emphasis shifted away from a saintly way of life to a succession of promises and warnings.


“forgive your enemies.” Christian ethics, along with classical Greek ethics, became a dominant moral ideal of the ancient world. But in the process there was generated not an ethics but a theology.

Jesus the ideal man became Christ the second member of the Trinity (Father, Son, Holy Spirit). One’s eternal salvation depended on one’s adherence, not to the way of life taught in the Gospels, but to the Christian doctrine which admitted only believers in Christ to the kingdom of heaven. Thus the emphasis shifted from a saintly way of life to a succession of promises and warnings concerning one’s fate in an eternal hereafter: “No one can come to the Father but by me.”

We think, we believe, we wonder, we doubt. All these occur in what we commonly call our minds. It is true that we also have physical bodies. We cannot think without having brains: a brain is a necessary condition for the occurrence of any kind of mental life. Having a brain is not sufficient for thinking, but it is surely necessary.

It is far from clear, even today, to what extent minds occur in the universe. If having a mind presupposes that the creature weighs alternatives and then chooses among them, we cannot be sure that any creatures other than human beings have minds. Do armadillos weigh alternatives and then choose? Can we even be sure about dogs and cats? They act in this way rather than that, but do they go through the mental process of choosing? Many would question this.

Perhaps then we should draw the line elsewhere: by answering the question “Are they conscious?” A dog is conscious – he feels pain and pleasure, and he is aware of people around him. But so is the garden snake who avoids people, and perhaps the mosquito as well. In fact we don’t know, and can only guess, whether certain organisms, such as amoebas and shellfish, are conscious of anything. We just don’t know how far down in the tree of life we have to go to determine at which level consciousness occurs. We would bet that the tree out there is not conscious; but how would we proceed to collect on such a bet?

There are many physical organisms that lack conscious- ness. But are there beings with consciousness who do not possess physical bodies? We are immediately inclined to say No; how can there possibly be a mind, a center of consciousness, with no physical organism located at a definite point in space? What would you say of a new neighbor of whom people said “We don’t think he has a body”?

“It’s impossible,” we exclaim. “How can you even conceive of anything that absurd?” But countless people apparently do believe it, when they believe in God. God, they say, is an incorporeal spirit, with no body at all. “But where is he located?” He is not located in space, we are told. He is a non- spatial being, at once everywhere and nowhere; yet the uni- verse owes its entire existence to him.

Absurd if you like: but is this not what Christians believe? When they pray it is not to a physical body but to a mind (an infinite mind, if you like) who is source and origin of every- thing that exists. He is aware of everything, including your every thought and impulse; yet you cannot point to any object or collection of objects and truly say “There he is!”

A similar situation arises when we are speaking not of God but of ordinary human beings who have died. “Where is he?” “He is right there, lying in his grave.” “No, that’s not what I mean. He no longer has a body, only a spirit or soul.” Isn’t that what we attribute to loved ones who have “passed on”? They have died, but they are still alive.

The little daughter for whom we grieve is still alive, and has thoughts and feelings even though she is no longer here. “She’s in heaven,” we may say. But this presents an array of questions. Will she always be as she is now, a little girl? Will she grow up and become an adult, in time even an old woman? Does she remember us now? Does she miss us? Can she grieve also?

What of the mother who has lost her son in war and wonders whether her son, now in heaven, misses us. “Yes,” people say, “but not in a way that would hurt him.” But how can he not be hurt if he is now without someone who had been so

Absurd if you like: but is this not what Christians believe? When they pray, it is not to a physical body but to a mind (an infinite mind) who is the source and origin of every- thing that exists.


central to his life? In what sense can he be said to still exist at all? Yet that, or something very like it, is what many generations of Christians have believed. They believe falsely, we may say, just as one believes falsely that there are ghosts or leprechauns.

But do they say it intelligibly? They utter the words – but you can’t just attach any old adjective to a noun and then take for granted that you have actually said something meaningful about reality. Whether you have or haven’t is a matter of continuing controversy.

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